The scholastic paradigm

First we must realize that beliefs and knowledge in any era are influenced by concomitant time-dependent paradigms. That the medieval world view could be described with the help of the scholastic paradigm satisfied contemporary needs. Although this paradigm may be characterized as prescientific, it was a complete philosophy which wove together morality and heavenly systems with physical and worldly systems, creating one entity. This amalgamation was based on the following propositions, the aim of which was to join belief and knowing:

  • Nature was alive and thus mortal, vulnerable and finite.
  • The universe and the nature of time was possible to understand.
  • Salvation of the soul was the most important challenge.
  • Natural sciences were subordinate to theology.
  • The goal of science was to show the correlation between the world and spiritual truth.
  • Knowledge was of an encyclopaedic nature, classified and labelled.
  • The structure of society was influenced by Heaven and reflected a divine order. The cruciform medievial city was not only functional, in addition, it was a religious symbol.

Scientific development was thus acknowledged only when it supported religion. Religion was considered the superior interest and had the priority in a clash of interests. To pursue science in this era was most often the same as profound interpretations of old religious texts. The existing method with which to explain the complexities of phenomena was insight or revelation. Divine order and truth was revealed to human beings through the Church. Curiosity as such was a sin and when the first universities emerged, it was in order to maintain the knowledge which was acquired through or given by God. Observation, recording, experimentation and drawing objective conclusions were not encouraged. Nature was viewed as an organism created by God; to destroy Nature was to commit a sin. The natural forces were beyond human control; any protection from them would come from God or from witchcraft. Natural phenomena not understood were given a supernatural explanation.

Every man was considered to have his place in the divine order. To question or change this order was a rebellion against nature and society, both creations of God. Worldly poverty was compensated with heavenly happiness and the sinful abundance of wealth was punished by the horrible fire of hell.

In the  scholastic  conception,  goal-seeking  or  teleology,  was  an important concept. It was considered built into nature: stones fell to earth because they belonged to the earth and strove to join their origin and come to rest. The flower strived to bloom in order to bear fruit etc. Also the static explanation of world order according to the second century AD astronomer Ptolemy as his geocentric worldview, was predominant.

No difference was made between reality and dream, between fact and judgement. Alchemy was not distinguished from chemistry, nor astrology from astronomy. Reason was often regarded as something irrelevant or offensive to the mysterious existence. The connection with reality was unformulated, imprecise, implicit and indeterminate. In physics, for example, one spoke about the four (later extended to six) basic substances. They were:

  • Earth
  • Water
  • Air
  • Fire
  • (Quintessence, including ether)
  • (Magnetism)

To these basic substances or elements were associated certain genius. The gnome belonged to the earth, while the undine belonged to the water. The sylf protected air and the salamander fire. The elements had a natural position in the world with fire uppermost, thereafter air, water and at the bottom earth. They also had natural qualities like warm (fire), cold (air), moist (water) and, dry (earth). Moreover, all elements had their own, distinct geometrical marks (the Platonic bodies).

Psychology as a formal science was unknown. Mental qualities, such as satanic, demonic, human, angelic, divine, were nevertheless recognized, as were the following manifestations.

The Greek physician Galenos (131-201) produced a classification of human beings. According to him, each individual belonged to one of four  classes defined by what kind of ‘body fluid’ was predominant. A certain connection between body fluid and type of personality was considered to be highly significant.

Dominant fluid:

  • Blood
  • Yellow gall
  • Black gall
  • Slime

Type of personality:

  • Sanguine
  • Choleric
  • Melancholic
  • Phlegmatic

An upset in the balance between the bodily fluids was considered to be the cause of an illness. The initial learning in science and art had their own symbolic shapes taken from the Greek mythology. They were the Nine Muses, goddesses with the follwing fields of responsibility:

  • Kalliope, epic writing
  • Klio, historical writing
  • Melpomene, tragedy and mourning writing
  • Erato, song with accompaniment
  • Euterpe, flute music
  • Thalia, comedy
  • Terpsichore, choir and dance
  • Polyhymnia, dance and pantomime
  • Urania, astronomy

When we approach the Renaissance, the contemporary universities of Europe were permanently established. Embryos of modern disciplines were organized and students studied Liberal Arts (Artes Liberales). It was called liberal because they were considered liberating for the soul and a convenient study for a freeman. Originally, the Liberal Arts were seven in  number. Including the medieval subjects of grammar, dialectics and rhetoric (trivium), Liberal Arts consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

In a sense, medieval life was unnarcissistic. Ordinary people had only vague ideas of their own participating in the world. Individual and social identities were formed by influences from rituals and traditions rather than by reflection. But despite of prevailing mysticism, it would be a mistake to consider the mentality of the Middle Ages as primitive. Behind this disregard for the physical world and the world of men lay the image of human existence as a trial. Life was considered to be a journey to heaven. The seemingly austere existence was abundantly compensated for by a rich mental life and a far-reaching spiritual imagination. The scholastic worldview created harmony between existing belief and science of its time and between physics and metaphysics.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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